Pastors of the Apocalypse! Shepherd [aka Cybercity] (1999)

It’s after the end of the world (again and again and again). This time the sweet one-two punch of World War III and an ecological catastrophe has turned our blue planet brown, so humanity has fled underground. There our descendants dwell in what looks surprisingly like (often pretty foggy) warehouse sets, suffer from a lack of decent lighting that can only cause depression and off-screen monologues, and are dominated by various competing religious cults and sects.

Our hero of the evening, one properly action-movie-monikered guy known as Boris Dakota (C. Thomas Howell) works as a Shepherd – an enforcer/killer – for Miles (Roddy Piper), whose religion seems to be what happens when an Evangelical TV preacher goes worse. Miles’s guys (and it’s only guys) seem to be – as far as I parse the intensely vague world building of the film – one of the big two crazy cults in the underground world. Right now, Miles’s guys are living in a truce with the other big cult, the skimpy leather-clad girls of Lilith (Heidi von Palleske), keeping the apocalypse after the apocalypse at bay by not killing each other in public. Or something.

For his part Dakota isn’t much of a believer in anything anymore, since he suffers from the classical action hero traumatic past of a murdered wife and son, and now spends the time in which he isn’t killing people for Miles or his old friend Lyndon (Mackenzie Gray) growling off-screen monologues about how much humanity sucks, and watching virtual low-res memories and screen savers of his family on what looks suspiciously like sun glasses, an awesome invention the film never even bothers to name but that will have excellent uses when it comes to hurting the audience’s eyes, exposition, and random stuff.

However, when Dakota is assigned a new – and as he hopes and Miles will make sure, last – target, something you might at first confuse with a plot surfaces, for said target, one Sophia (Marina Anderson) just happens to have a son right of the age Dakota’s kid was when he was murdered. So obviously, Dakota saves Sophia and the child from other assassins instead of killing her and attempts to take on the role of their protector. At first, Sophia isn’t all too keen on Dakota, but after enough lackluster attacks on them, she’ll surely come around.

As you might suspect after this meandering synopsis of not much of a plot, if you go looking into this Roger Corman production directed by Peter Hayman expecting much of an actual movie as people generally understand the term, you might be a mite disappointed. The plot – such as it is – is really just a series of lamely reproduced clichĂ©s presented with all the enthusiasm and coherence of a late period Santo movie (which, if you don’t know your lucha cinema, means none whatsoever), with character actions and motivations that often don’t even make sense in the very broad interpretation of the word we use when talking about post-apocalyptic action cinema, underground (aka “we can’t afford to shoot outside, and Bronson Canyon’s too far away”) division. I, at least, can make neither heads nor tails out of the whole conspiracy angle between Miles and Lilith’s cults. If indeed there even is such an angle. I think it says everything about the quality of the writing here I’m not sure either way. Or, to take another example, why exactly does Lyndon act as he does in the final scenes? How the hell should the script know.

Obviously, things like suspense or excitement are right out in Shepherd, particularly since the action scenes are of the just barely competent type that neither wants to be creative nor exciting and just hovers around words like “there”. And nope, we don’t even get to see a titanic throw-down between Howell and Piper, which is probably for the better seeing how slow Howell moves.

However, while Shepherd is barely watchable as a serious piece of post-apocalyptic action film, it is a pretty brilliant lump of utter, inexplicable nonsense, and what creativity was involved behind the camera was clearly concentrated on a) providing various actors with as many opportunities for scenery chewing as possible, and b) adding absolutely pointless yet awesome nonsense/stuff/random insanity to as many scenes as possible. So Shepherd gifts us with great moments in cinema like Roddy Piper living in his own memory glasses world where he does the whole sub-Jesus thing, bare-chested and carrying around a humongous crucifix on his back. Roddy also dreams of hitting people with one of those crosses-on-a-stick (that’s the technical term, right, religious readers?) bishops and the like carry around, actually likes to kick his henchmen when they are down, and spends most of his screen time angrily ranting and raving in sentences that can’t be meant to make sense. Truly, that part of the film is a thing to behold. And while Howell didn’t get the message about the scenery chewing beyond “do a manly growly voice, dude”, von Palleske and Lyndon in particular really join in the fun with gusto.

Other joys here are the random appearance of a cannibalistic punk (this is not a film who could afford a gang of them, sorry) who leads our hero back to the boy with his awesome power of smelling little boys (seriously), a just as random Roddy Piper crucifixion, and last but not least a cameo by good old David Carradine.

Carradine is not a man to be trifled with in the finding nothing undignified sweepstakes, so his character is only listed as “Ventriloquist”. And indeed, David is one, and because this film is very special, David Carradine isn’t just a ventriloquist but has his star turn here drugging C. Thomas Howell, then straddling him while good old C. Thomas dreams of having sex with a woman quite clearly not David Carradine, and proceeding to strangle Howell with his ventriloquist’s doll. A doll, that, for reasons I don’t even want to think about, also seems to be trans.

And this, ladies and gentlemen, should really answer anyone’s questions about whether Shepherd is worth watching. Yes, it is.

Denis Klotz contributes a regular film column for ExB, and can otherwise be found kicking around on his prolific cult media blog The Horror!?

Back in Action (1993)

As is traditional, tough cop Frank Rossi’s (Roddy Piper) partner is slaughtered by one of the psychopathic goons of drug lord Kasajian (Nigel Bennett chewing the scenery like any good low budget action villain, and getting a rather funny acupuncture scene later on, because evil people like needles) during a fake drug trade that turns into a giant shoot-out, leaving Rossi with a giant hate-on for Kasajian and his guys.

The cop’s not the only one who really doesn’t like this particular bad guy. Former special forces operative and shirt-hater Billy (Billy Blanks) was at the scene of the shoot-out to drag his sister Tara (Kai Soremekun) away from her really rather stupid drug dealer boyfriend (Damon D’Oliveira, I think), the kind of guy who thinks it’s a brilliant idea to take his girlfriend out on a big drug deal. Alas, nobody really notices Billy dragging away Tara, so Kasajian and co decide she’s clearly responsible for the appearance of the cops. So, even though this makes not a lick of sense in context of what happened, Tara has to die.

Thanks to his adeptness at all kinds of violence, Billy’s quite good at protecting his sister from harm – there must after all be an upside to his type of Neanderthal sister-parenting – but Tara’s just as adept at running away from him in an attempt to reunite with her boyfriend and then run away with him, a plan I couldn’t help but sympathize with, given Billy’s style. This situation does of course give the film many an opportunity for everything we come for in an action film. Soon, the increasingly unhinged and bloodthirsty Rossi and the already unhinged and probably bloodthirsty Billy meet, punch each other in the face in a scene that looks like a much shortened version of the big punch-out in They Live, and team-up. Rossi’s TV reporter on-again off-again girlfriend Helen (Bobbie Phillips) involves herself in the case, too, adding a second character to get kidnapped, hooray.

Do I even need to mention that explosions, bloodshed, shoot-outs and many a shot of angry man faces with bugging eyes will occur before the situation can be put to rights, if by “put to rights” you mean all the bad guys readied for burial?

The thing is, despite the most generic plot imaginable, and the usual nasty “hooray for vigilantism” subtext, Steve DiMarco’s (with an IMDB-suggested assist by future SyFy movie maestro Paul Ziller I so much want to believe is true) Back in Action (please don’t ask what the title has to do with anything) is a fantastic example of what’s good about 90s US low budget action movies, with a smidgen of martial arts provided by the mummy-faced Blanks.

The director(s) do a straightforward yet really effectively dynamic job, with not too many attempts at flashy editing tricks, so you can see what’s going on with the violence without many problems, yet enough of an actual visual concept there’s no question there’s more going on with the film than just people pointing the camera at stuntmen; it’s the best of both worlds, really. Why, even the copious amounts of slow-motion make sense enough to only very seldom become ridiculous; even better, I never got the impression the director(s) was out to senselessly ape John Woo with its use. The effect is action that feels exhilarating instead of as cheap as it actually is, with fine stunt work and two male leads who are great screen fighters in any situation the film throws at them. Back in Action also has a spirited approach to the expected genre clichĂ©s, with villains that seem to enjoy their own evilness hugely, a cop on the edge versus boss shouting-match of great entertainment value, and other kinds of idiocy presented with the kind of enthusiasm that can’t help but turn them awesome.

Piper and Blanks also have pretty good chemistry going, with Piper for my tastes the definitely more likeable of the pair, as well as the slightly better actor but Blanks very ably using his physicality to make up for his problems with the finer parts of the acting job. And really, it’s not as if Blanks were bad, particularly not when you keep in mind how good he looks kicking people in the face here, which is the more important part of acting anyhow.

I was positively surprised by the comparatively un-annoying way Back in Actionhandles its female characters. Sure, they’re there to get kidnapped and wear short skirts, but the film does give them a little agency and even some involvement in the finale beyond the getting kidnapped part, with enough of a sense that Helen and Tara are persons there’s no need to gnash your teeth at the film. Sure, they both act pretty stupid at times, but that’s no difference at all to the film’s supposed heroes or its villains, because nobody involved here thinks anything through for even a second.

It’s better this way, too, for if even half of the film’s characters had any brains at all, there’d be no opportunity for all the shoot-outs, punch-outs and explosions, no face-kicking and probably not even a single scene of Rowdy Roddy Piper winning a fight but looking like he really got a work-over after it (which is a thing I like in my action heroes). In short, there’d be no opportunity at all for Back in Action to become the piece of choice entertainment that it is.

Denis Klotz contributes a regular bi-weekly film column for ExB, and can otherwise be found kicking around on his prolific cult media blog The Horror!?

Sci-Fighters (1996)

coverIt’s the far-flung future of 2009, and what a time it is. What we see of the cities looks like Blade Runner lite, there’s a high security prison on the moon (so I assume the economy’s booming), and people carry little personal electronics devices quite like smart phones without the phone part around. Oh, and Earth has been hanging under a cloud of dust for nearly three months now, leading to an eternal night the locals call Econight, perhaps because The Eternal Darkness was already taken.

Anyway, back on the moon crazy murderer and rapist Adrian Dunn (Billy Drago) decides to infect himself with a mysterious (yes, of course it’s alien) virus that seemingly kills him. Unfortunately, Adrian isn’t quite as dead as people think he is, so once his body has been returned to his native Boston in a way one might find rather unhygienic and left lying around in the local spaceport, he rises from the dead quite exactly like Jesus, if Jesus had been an increasingly leaky, muttering and physically and mentally quite appalling Billy Drago; so, depending on your favourite parts of the New Testament, perhaps not quite like Jesus.

The newly reborn Adrian continues to do what he loves best, namely going around killing men and raping women in a city that doesn’t seem to care all that much. Well, police detective – with a “black badge” that makes him some kind of institutionally condoned version of Dirty Harry or a comparatively harmless version of Judge Dredd – Cameron Grayson (Roddy Piper) cares once he realizes there’s a dead virally active murderer around, particularly because he has very personal reasons to hate Adrian. In his quest to catch and preferably kill Adrian, and postpone what might very well turn out to be a viral doomsday, Grayson teams up with virologist Dr. Kirbie Younger (Jayne Heitmeyer) and her mentor Dr. Washington (Tyrone Benskin). Given the surprising powers of not-dying-from-getting-shot and leaking icky fluids Adrian develops, the state Adrian’s victims are in after a while, and the generally fucked-up state of the world he’s living in, Grayson will need all the help he can get.

As far as direct-to-video SF/action/horror films go, Peter Svatek’s Sci-fighters (whose title of course has sod all to do with the film it belongs to) is really rather good. Sure, the production design is mostly a much cheaper version of Blade Runner‘s, the world building isn’t exactly deeply thought through, and the plotting is very much as archetypal an example of low budget SF/action with added body horror ickiness as you’ll find, but Svatek’s execution of the whole affair is much better than it needs to be.

It does – of course – help the film a lot that its four larger characters are played by Piper, Drago, Heitmeyer and Benskin who all had been around the low budget movie block for quite some time when this was made, and who all bring charisma and professionalism to roles that could in other hands have turned out pretty boring instead of somewhat sympathetic and slightly interesting. It’s certainly no surprise that Drago knows how to chew scenery, or how to go into melodramatic bodily contortions when an infection with an alien virus calls for it (he does that sort of thing every day), but it’s as much of a pleasure to watch here as it ever is; as is Piper’s ability to keep his character vaguely sympathetic despite him being a bit of a prick.

Mark Sevi’s script is sharing some responsibility for this general lack of suckiness too, for it does use the clichĂ©s it’s working with sometimes quite well. The shared background between Adrian and Grayson is a smidgen more interesting and complicated than usual in these cases, and because its details beyond the most obvious ones are disclosed slowly over the course of the movie, it stays vaguely interesting throughout. Even the obligatory romance between Grayson and Kirbie is more interesting than these things usually are, with a slightly more grown-up idea of how damaged people like Grayson relate romantically. Why, the film even doesn’t put the mandatory sex scene in where it would usually be placed, and ends the romance sub-plot at an open yet not all that hopeful point. In this regard, it’s also rather interesting which character it is in the end who kills off Adrian, and who it isn’t; let’s just say it isn’t “Rowdy” Roddy Piper.

Sevi’s script does quite a bit more of this kind of thing, keeping inside the lines of low budget genre filmmaking of its day and age yet showing some thought, even some ideas of its own. I found myself particularly impressed by the way the film handles all that raping without giving the deeply unpleasant impression a lot of low budget films of all genres fall into – probably seldom on purpose, to be fair – that rape is kinda hot (and the best way to show breasts in a movie). In Sci-fighters, rape and rapists are clearly vile, an idea that is of course cemented further by Drago’s performance and physical changes, as well as by the whole alien, terraforming virus angle that puts extra emphasis on rape as something unnatural and inhuman. This does of course also carry a metaphorical echo of the way many raped women feel afterwards, though I’m not too sure the film is having this resonance on purpose and not just by a more or less happy accident.

On the other hand, the film also has the heart to have little moments that suggest Adrian isn’t as easily filed away as a monster (that is, something beyond and below humanity) than as a twisted and broken human being; if you ask me, that’s a rather more horrifying thought than the completely evil Other could ever be.

Of course, all these slightly more clever bits and pieces which I’m not even sure are in the film on purpose, are all just minor parts in a rather generic, competently filmed piece of SF action horror (a sub-genre that should have its own name), and are the kind of thing you realize more once you start thinking about a movie than when you’re actually watching it. That’s as it should be, for while the kind of film I (and I suspect anyone reading this) spend most of my time with is often rather more clever than people not involved in the joys of low budget genre films assume, a film like Sci-fighters lives and dies on its ability to deliver cheap thrills. Fortunately, it’s good at that, too.

Denis Klotz contributes a regular weekly film column for ExB, and can otherwise be found kicking around on his prolific cult media blog The Horror!?